Sex First, Then Violence
8 October 2002
I woke up this morning -- are you ready for this? -- hungry. In fact, it woke me up. I had an English muffin with Steph The Geek's amazing spiced blackberry jam. This is a very good thing, because I'm having lunch Chez Zed today, and it would be kind of hard to be properly enthusiastic as a guest in someone's home without feeling like I ever wanted to put food in my mouth ever ever again. Even if "someone" is Zed and he's probably used to me by now.
And Timprov felt up for a walk this morning for the first time in ages. So it's been a good start to the day so far.
And the Giants won last night. Meaning the Braves lost. Good on both counts. It's a good year to be my team of choice, evidently. I had three teams I definitely wanted to win, two teams I definitely wanted to lose, and it all worked out. Woohoo! Best playoffs ever. Let's hope it continues that way.
And no more annoying-yet-offensive organ music and cheer for the rest of the year. Woohoo. Thomas, can't you make them stop?
I'm also annoyed by the commercial broadcasters who say "fermiliar." "Familiar" is not a tribute word to Enrico Fermi. It only requires one r. I don't hold Thomas at all responsible for this one, but, y'know, if there's anything any of you can do about it....
Ah well. It's C.J.'s birthday! So I shouldn't focus on things that annoy me. I should focus on the happy birthday of the C.J.
So. One of you readers (hi, Frank!) wrote to me after Sunday's entry to ask me how I handle sex in my own work, since I was asking what people thought was off limits. (I haven't gotten a lot of responses on that one...do you guys just not think about this one?) Um. Well. Come on, you all know how much I hate writing descriptions by now, right? Well, descriptions of sex are worse than descriptions of anything else. Much, much worse. They're harder to do well. The language we have for them tends to sound overwrought, juvenile, or clinical. Or some combination of those things. Hurrah.
Seriously, I don't have a lot of explicit sex in my work, and the description thing is a major part of it. Another major part of it is that Mark's grandpa is a science fiction fan. I can deal with my mom reading sex scenes in my book -- my mom was the one who told me about sex, so I know she's dealt with the M'ris Plus Sex idea before, and I swiped enough Mary Stewart and Jean Auel from her shelves when I was a kid to know that she can enjoy reading about much more explicitly sexual stuff than I want to write. (And for the combination of overwrought, juvenile, and occasionally clinical, let's hear it for Jean Auel!) My own grandparents are not SF fans -- they'll only read my stuff because it's mine. But Mark's grandpa loves SF. Do I want to sit down and tell him stories about anybody's turgid anything? I do not. Do I want to shoo him away from ideas that I otherwise like because they involve somebody's turgid something? Nope.
Another factor in the lack of on-stage sex in my work is that, as I've said before, I'm more interested in established and permanent relationships than in new ones. And while there are plenty of changes in the dynamics of a sexual relationship over time, they're only sometimes a good subplot. Still important to the relationship, but one would hope that people who have been together for twenty years would have established ways to deal with changes and be considerate to each other.
Then there's the fact that I frequently write YAs. I know that some YAs have sex in them, but when you write about twelve-year-old geeks, they're much more likely to be petrified about whether someone likes them than tearing their clothes off.
With all that said, there's sex in the first chapter of Reprogramming and more later on, and there's sex in the Not The Moose Book, too. None of it is very specifically described. In Reprogramming, it's largely a motivating factor. Not in a direct you-do-this-and-you-get-sex sort of a way, but more in the context of the romantic relationship motivating Anton (the main character).
In the Not The Moose Book...well, there are a few things that are a little more clearly depicted. Some general notion of position is given in at least one case. The sex in the beginning of the book is...well, hmm. A POV (point of view) character, Edward, a British computer engineer/programmer, falls in love with one of the most powerful Finnish witches, a woman named Sohvi. (Sohvi Vääräniemi, actually, and I've gotten to the point where I can type that last name quickly with all the dots. Heehee.) Sohvi is fond of him but much more pragmatic and from a totally different culture. It's easy for Edward to underestimate how different the culture is, though, because Finland as we know it in 1950 is not that vastly different from the U.K. in 1950. The problem is, Sohvi doesn't come from Finland as we (and Edward) know it. She comes from the Finland where the witches (the louhis, they're called, referencing the Kalevala) are in behind-the-scenes control of everything -- including their own sex lives. (That's rather less behind-the-scenes, actually. Somewhat more up-front.)
So she's just as confident in her own socially dominant position as he is in his. The main difference is that she knows there's likely to be a clash, whereas he has very little inkling. But most of that plays out well enough socially that I don't have to show a lot of the sex to demonstrate the character interactions.
I guess my rule is, whatever sex is shown needs to further the plot, characters, setting, or theme. When it does in other people's books, I read happily enough (though sometimes with alarm, depending -- sexual violence is not something I find easy to read even when it's necessary for the book). When it doesn't, I roll my eyes and mock the prose. Um, actually I roll my eyes and mock the prose sometimes anyway, even if it does further one of those good things above. Because there's just some really bad sex writing out there.
Okay, so I guess I've given you my writerly version of The Talk. Any questions? Your dad and I bought you this book, so if you want to look at it further, that's fine, and you can always ask me....
The Merc ran a Leonard Pitts column that really upset me today. He was talking about the bank robbery in Norfolk, NE, (that's pronounced "nor-fork," by the way) and how a leader in the Hispanic community felt that he needed to say that the Hispanic community would never condone the murders and robbery committed by four of the people who'd grown up in it. Pitts' point was that when you're a minority, you feel the need to say you're sorry and take responsibility for stuff you didn't do, and you shouldn't feel that need. And it made me really, really angry, because there was a white man in Nebraska who felt so responsible for that particular crime that he took his own life for it. Since it had nothing to do with race, though, it didn't even warrant the tiniest mention in Leonard Pitts' world. And that is just plain wrong.
The guy was a cop. He'd messed up a check on one of the guns used in the robbery the week before, and he didn't find out that it was stolen. Does that make him responsible for the five deaths? I really don't believe that it does. There were four bank robbers, using four guns. They could have stolen other guns, or just left the guy who got caught behind, if the officer had found out about the stolen gun. They could have decided not to do it. It was not his fault. But he felt so overcome with the guilt and responsibility that he killed himself.
And I'm from Nebraska. I can tell you which of my parents' friends knew this cop. (And guess what? If he'd been black or Hispanic, I still could tell you which of my parents' friends knew him.) I can tell you which of them probably knew which victims of the robbery, too. That's the thing about being from the Midwest -- I keep trying to convince people that there are more than 100 residents of Nebraska, but it is a much smaller world in some ways, and that makes the connections we all share jump out at us. After the Oklahoma City bombing, people talked about how it was such a shock because people didn't believe that sort of thing could happen in the Midwest. I don't think that was it at all -- or maybe that was why it messed with people on the coasts. I think it was so shocking for us at home, though, because in the Midwest, you didn't have to wonder whether some Oklahomans you knew had some friend or family member or acquaintance in that building, because they did. Period. You just know for a fact that they did. You had to know that you weren't any Hollywood six degrees from those people. You were probably more like four, if you were in Nebraska. Two would be my guess for Oklahomans.
Every death should be meaningful to us. It should affect us when five people are shot dead in forty seconds, out of nowhere. That should somehow impinge upon our world, whether they're in San Francisco or Norfolk or Tel Aviv or East Timor.
And it should impinge on us individually. When we hear that kind of news, we should stop to think what kind of interactions the victims might have had with the people who knew them. Whose parent or child they were, whose cousin, whose friend, whose co-worker, whose former classmate. It might be easier for people who are from Nebraska, because you can find the connections for the tragedies close to home, so it might be easier to imagine them for the ones farther away. But I haven't seen that Nebraskans are more empathetic than other people, so maybe some people don't see it that way. I don't know.
What I do know is that for Mr. Pitts, it was more important to talk about The Minority Experience In America, no matter what else happened. He could write a column about how sad it was that people felt they had to take responsibility for things that weren't their fault, and he could omit from his column the person who did that the most actively, because that person was white. And it's very sad to me that the Hispanic guy felt the need to apologize, but he could walk out of that church after the funeral and have a white member of the community -- maybe the parents of someone I did debate with, maybe someone my dad has consulted with -- pat him on the shoulder and say, "Hey, it's not your fault. We all know that." The police officer who shot himself could not do that. And that's a tragic and awful way to take responsibility no matter what color he was.
The guy's name was Mark Zach, by the way. The officer who shot himself, I mean. Names are important. They make things real and personal. No. They make the things that already are real and personal seem that way to us. And when we focus too much on race, we take away the real and the personal, we have a hard time seeing the human beings involved in a story, no matter which direction our focus on race goes.
Whew. Um. (Er, happy birthday anyway, Ceej.) Okay, then. Marymary said she wanted to hear more about my story ideas from The Reckoning, because she was the reason I read it in the first place, but I think I'm going to have to do that tomorrow or on e-mail, because this has gotten quite long enough, and I have to get myself cleaned up so that I'm presentable to go hang out with Zed. ("Cleaned up" means shorts and a tank top for the third day in the row. Hello, October? Are you here?) So I'm going to grab my bookdarts and a library book about China (probably Escape from China: The Long Journey from Tienanmen to Freedom) and get on the train. Hope you're having a good day, despite all of my talk of sex and violence.
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